The story

The Ex-Slaves Who Fought with the British

The Ex-Slaves Who Fought with the British

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When American colonists took up arms in a battle for independence starting in 1775, that fight for freedom excluded an entire race of people—African-Americans. On November 12, 1775, General George Washington decreed in his orders that “neither negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men” could enlist in the Continental Army.

Two days after the patriots’ military leader banned African-Americans from joining his ranks, however, black soldiers proved their mettle at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing along the Virginia coast. They captured an enemy commanding officer and proved pivotal in securing the victory—for the British.

After the battle, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia who had been forced to flee the capital of Williamsburg and form a government in exile aboard the warship HMS Fowey, ordered the British standard raised before making a startling announcement. For the first time in public he formally read a proclamation that he had issued the previous week granting freedom to the slaves of rebels who escaped to British custody.

Dunmore’s Proclamation was “more an announcement of military strategy than a pronouncement of abolitionist principles,” according to author Gary B. Nash in “The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America.” The document not only provided the British with an immediate source of manpower, it weakened Virginia’s patriots by depriving them of their main source of labor.

Much like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, however, Dunmore’s Proclamation was limited in scope. Careful not to alienate Britain’s white Loyalist allies, the measure applied only to slaves whose masters were in rebellion against the Crown. The British regularly returned slaves who fled from Loyalist masters.

Dunmore’s Proclamation inspired thousands of slaves to risk their lives in search of freedom. They swam, dog-paddled and rowed to Dunmore’s floating government-in-exile on Chesapeake Bay in order to find protection with the British forces. “By mid-1776, what had been a small stream of escaping slaves now turned into a torrent,” wrote Nash. “Over the next seven years, enslaved Africans mounted the greatest slave rebellion in American history.”

Among those slaves making a break for freedom were eight belonging to Peyton Randolph, speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and several belonging to patriot orator Patrick Henry who apparently took his famous words—“Give me liberty, or give me death!”—to heart and fled to British custody. Another runaway who found sanctuary with Dunmore was Harry Washington, who escaped from Mount Vernon while his famous master led the Continental Army.

Dunmore placed these “Black Loyalists” in the newly formed Ethiopian Regiment and had the words “Liberty to Slaves” embroidered on their uniform sashes. Since the idea of escaped slaves armed with guns stirred terror even among white Loyalists, Dunmore placated the slaveholders by primarily using the runaways as laborers building forts, bridges and trenches and engaging in trades such as shoemaking, blacksmithing and carpentry. Women worked as nurses, cooks and seamstresses.

As manpower issues grew more dire as the war progressed, however, the British army became more amenable to arming runaway slaves and sending them into battle. General Henry Clinton organized an all-black regiment, the “Black Pioneers.” Among the hundreds of runaway slaves in its ranks was Harry Washington, who rose to the rank of corporal and participated in the siege of Charleston.

On June 30, 1779, Clinton expanded on Dunmore’s actions and issued the Philipsburg Proclamation, which promised protection and freedom to all slaves in the colonies who escaped from their patriot masters. Blacks captured fighting for the enemy, however, would be sold into bondage.

READ MORE: 7 Black Heroes of the American Revolution

According to Maya Jasanoff in her book “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World,” approximately 20,000 black slaves joined the British during the American Revolution. In contrast, historians estimate that only about 5,000 black men served in the Continental Army.

As the American Revolution came to close with the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, white Loyalists and thousands of their slaves evacuated Savannah and Charleston and resettled in Florida and on plantations in the Bahamas, Jamaica and other British territories throughout the Caribbean. The subsequent peace negotiations called for all slaves who escaped behind British lines before November 30, 1782, to be freed with restitution given to their owners. In order to determine which African-Americans were eligible for freedom and which weren’t, the British verified the names, ages and dates of escape for every runaway slave in their custody and recorded the information in what was called the “Book of Negroes.”

With their certificates of freedom in hand, 3,000 black men, women and children joined the Loyalist exodus from New York to Nova Scotia in 1783. There the Black Loyalists found freedom, but little else. After years of economic hardship and denial of the land and provisions they had been promised, nearly half of the Black Loyalists abandoned the Canadian province. Approximately 400 sailed to London, while in 1792 more than 1,200 brought their stories full circle and returned to Africa in a new settlement in Sierra Leone. Among the newly relocated was the former slave of the newly elected president of the United States—Harry Washington—who returned to the land of his birth.

The First Black Britons

Black people have lived in Britain for centuries - although their circumstances have varied greatly. Some have been enslaved and exploited, while others have enjoyed privilege and status. Trace their story to discover more about the attitudes and conditions they encountered.

Would Slavery Have Ended Sooner if the British Won the American Revolutionary War?

Keith Brooks is a long time activist and a recently retired New York City high school educator. Previously, he taught at Richmond College and Alternate U. He has been published in Black Agenda Report, The Nation, In these Times, Labor Research Review, the Baltimore Sun, Amsterdam News, Newsday, and other progressive and mainstream venues. Currently he is working on a book entitled "MythAmerica : Myths, Hidden Histories, and Lies of U.S. History."

John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Peirson painting depicts Black Loyalist soldiers fighting alongside British regulars

"I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery."

-Marquis de Lafayette, French military leader who was instrumental in enlisting French support for the colonists in the American War of Independence

Historians and the American public have long grappled with the contradiction that the Revolutionary War was waged under the banner "all men are created equal" yet was largely led by slave owners.

The July 4th, 1776 Declaration of Independence (DI) was in itself a revolutionary document. Never before in history had people asserted the right of revolution not just to overthrow a specific government that no longer met the needs of the people, but as a general principle for the relationship between the rulers and the ruled:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. "

And yes, "all men are created equal" excluded women, black people and the indigenous populations of the continent. Yes, it was written by slave-owner Thomas Jefferson with all his personal hypocrisies. Yes, once free of England, the U.S. grew over the next 89 years to be the largest slave-owning republic in history.

Americans are taught to see the birth of our country as a gift to the world, even when its original defects are acknowledged. The DI along with the Constitution are pillars of American exceptionalism--the belief that the U.S. is superior and unique from all others, holding the promise of an "Asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty" in the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense.

Indeed, the powerful words of the Declaration of Independence have been used many times since the Revolutionary War to challenge racism and other forms of domination and inequality. Both the 1789 French Revolution and the 1804 Haitian revolution--the only successful slave revolt in human history--drew inspiration from this clarion call. In 1829 black abolitionist David Walker threw the words of the DI back in the face of the slave republic: "See your declarations Americans. Do you understand your own language?" The 1848 Seneca Falls women's rights convention issued a Declaration of Sentiments proclaiming that "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal." Vietnam used these very words in declaring independence from France in 1946. And as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his 1963 &ldquoI Have a Dream&rdquo Speech, the Declaration was "A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Historian Gary Nash, among others, has strongly argued against the viewing history as inevitable. He argues this short circuits any consideration of the fact that every historical moment could have happened differently. For instance, in his book &ldquoThe Forgotten Fifth,&rdquo Nash argues that if Washington and Jefferson had been faithful to their anti-slavery rhetoric and chosen to lead a fight against slavery during the American Revolution, there was a good chance they could have succeeded.

Perhaps a different question might be asked: what if the British had won, had defeated the colonists' bid to break from the mother country? Is it possible that the cause of freedom and the ideals of the DI would have been paradoxically better served by that outcome?

England's Victory Over France Leads to the American War For Independence

It was, ironically, England's victory over France for control of the North American continent in the seven years' war (1756-1763) that laid the basis for their North American colonies to revolt just 13 years later. As the war with France ended, the British 1763 Proclamation prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian mountains in an attempt at detente with Native Americans -- bringing England into conflict with colonists wanting to expand westward. More serious still were the series of taxes England imposed on the colonies to pay off its large war debt: the 1765 Stamp Act, the 1767-1770 Townshend Acts, and the 1773 Tea Acts, among others. As colonial leaders mounted increasingly militant resistance to these measures, so too did British repression ramp up.

While "No taxation without representation" and opposition to British tyranny are the two most commonly cited causes propelling the colonists' drive for independence, recent scholarship (Slave Nation by Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen, Gerald Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776, and Alan Gilbert's Black Patriots and Loyalists in particular) has revealed a heretofore unacknowledged third major motivating force: the preservation and protection of slavery itself. In 1772, the highest British court ruled in the Somerset decision that slave owners had no legal claims to ownership of other humans in England itself, declaring slavery to be "odious". Somerset eliminated any possibility of a de jure defense of slavery in England, further reinforced at the time by Parliament refusing a request by British slave owners to pass such a law. While Somerset did not apply to England's colonies, it was taken by southern colonists as a potential threatto their ability to own slaves. Their fear was further reinforced by the 1766 Declaratory Act, which made explicit England's final say over any laws made in the colonies, and the "Repugnancy" clause in each colony's charter. Somerset added fuel to the growing fires uniting the colonies against England in a fight for independence.

"Seeing the Revolutionary War through the eyes of enslaved blacks turns its meaning upside down" Simon Schama, Rough Crossings

Among the list of grievances in the DI is ararely scrutinized statement: "He [referring to the king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us." This grievance was motivated by Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore's November 1775 proclamation stating that any person held as a slave by a colonist in rebellion against England would become free by joining the British forces in subduing the revolt. While 5000 black Americans, mostly free, from northern colonies joined with the colonists' fight for independence, few of our school books teach that tens of thousands more enslaved black people joined with the British, with an even greater number taking advantage of the war to escape the colonies altogether by running to Canada or Florida. They saw they had a better shot at "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" with the Britishthan with their colonial slave masters. To further put these numbers in perspective, the total population of the 13 colonies at the time was 2.5 million, of whom 500,000 were slaves and indentured servants. While there is some debate about the exact numbers, Peter Kolchin in American Slavery points to the "Sharp decline between 1770 and 1790 in the proportion of the population made up of blacks (almost all of whom were slaves) from 60.5% to 43.8% in South Carolina and from 45.2% to 36.1% in Georgia" (73). Other commonly cited figures from historians estimate 25,000 slaves escaped from South Carolina, 30,000 from Virginia, and 5,000 from Georgia. Gilbert in Black Patriots and Loyalists says "Estimates range between twenty thousand and one hundred thousand. if one adds in the thousands of not yet organized blacks who trailed. the major British forces. the number takes on dimensions accurately called 'gigantic' (xii). Among them were 30 of Thomas Jefferson's slaves, 20 of George Washington's, and good ole "Give me liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry also lost his slave Ralph Henry to the Brits. It was the first mass emancipation in American history. Evidently "domestic insurrection" was legitimate when led by slave owners against England but not when enslaved people rose up for their freedom--against the rebelling slave owners!

Before There Was Harriet Tubman There was Colonel Tye

Crispus Attucks is often hailed as the first martyr of the American revolution, a free black man killed defying British authority in the 1770 Boston Massacre. But few have heard of Titus, who just 5 years later was among those thousands of slaves who escaped to the British lines. He became known as Colonel Tye for his military prowess in leading black and white guerrilla fighters in numerous raids throughout Monmouth County, New Jersey, taking reprisals against slave owners, freeing their slaves, destroying their weaponry and creating an atmosphere of fear among the rebel colonists--and hope among their slaves. Other black regiments under the British fought with ribbons emblazoned across their chests saying "Liberty to Slaves". One might compare Col. Tye to Attucks but if Attucks is a hero, what does that make Tye, who freed hundreds of slaves? Perhaps a more apt comparison is with Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in 1849 and returned to the south numerous times to also free hundreds of her brothers and sisters held in bondage.

So what if the British had won?

At no point, however, did the British declare the end of slavery as a goal of thewar it was always just a military tactic. But if the Brits had won, as they came close to doing, it might have set off a series of events that went well beyond their control. Would England have been able to restore slavery in the 13 colonies in the face of certain anti-slavery resistance by the tens of thousands of now free ex-slaves, joined by growing anti-slavery forces in the northern colonies? As Gilbert puts it, "Class and race forged ties of solidarity in opposition to both the slave holders and the colonial elites." (10) Another sure ally would have been the abolitionist movement in England, which had been further emboldened by the 1772 Somerset decision. And if England had to abolish slavery in the 13 colonies, would that not have led to a wave of emancipations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America? And just what was the cost of the victorious independence struggle to the black population? To the indigenous populations who were described in that same DI grievance as "The merciless Indian Savages"? Might it have been better for the cause of freedom if the colonists lost? And if the colonists had lost, wouldn't the ideals of the DI have carried just as much if not more weight?

"The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation." Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduction to Slave Nation

We do know, however, the cost of the colonists' victory: once independence was won, while the northern states gradually abolished slavery, slavery BOOMED in the south. The first federal census in 1790 counted 700,000 slaves. By 1810, 2 years after the end of the slave trade, there were 1.2 million enslaved people, a 70% increase. England ended slavery in all its colonies in 1833, when there were 2 million enslaved people in the U.S. Slavery in the U.S. continued for another 33 years, during which time the slave population doubled to 4 million human beings. The U.S abolished slavery in 1865 only Cuba and Brazil ended slavery at a later date. The foregoing is not meant to romanticize and project England as some kind of abolitionist savior had they kept control of the colonies. Dunmore himself was a slave owner. England was the center of the international slave trade. Despite losing the 13 colonies, England maintained its position as the most powerful and rapacious empire in the world till the mid-20th century. As England did away with chattel slavery, it replaced it with the capitalist wage slavery of the industrial revolution. It used food as a weapon to starve the Irish, conquered and colonized large swaths of Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Historian Gerald Horne wrote that "Simply because Euro-American colonists prevailed in their establishing of the U.S., it should not be assumed that this result was inevitable. History points to other possibilities. I do not view the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity" (Counter-Revolution of 1776, ix). The American revolution was not just a war for independence from England. It was also a battle for freedom against the very leaders of that rebellion by hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people, a class struggle of poor white tenant farmers in many cases also against that same white colonial elite, and a fight for survival of the indigenous populations. But the colonists' unlikely victory lead to the creation of the largest slave nation in history, the near genocide of the indigenous populations, and a continent-wide expansion gained by invading and taking over half of Mexico. The U.S. went on to become an empire unparalleled in history, its wealth origins rooted largely in slave labor.

The struggles for equality and justice for all that the Declaration of Independence promised continues of course but ML King's promissory note remains unfulfilled. The late Chinese Premier Chou en Lai was once asked his assessment as to whether the French revolution was a step forward in history. His response was, "It's too soon to tell". Was the founding of the United States a step forward in history? Or is it still too soon to tell?


Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years, [1] populated by successive movements of peoples from other parts of Africa. [2] [3] The use of iron was introduced to Sierra Leone by the 9th century, and by the end of the 10th century agriculture was being practiced by coastal tribes. [4]

Sierra Leone's dense tropical rainforest partially isolated the land from other African cultures [5] and from the spread of Islam. This made it a refuge for people escaping subjugation by the Sahelian kingdoms, violence and jihads.

European contacts with Sierra Leone were among the first in West Africa. In 1462, Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming the oddly shaped formation Serra Lyoa (Lioness Mountain).

At this time the country was inhabited by numerous politically independent native groups. Several different languages were spoken, but there was similarity of religion. In the coastal rainforest belt there were Bulom-speakers between the Sherbro and Freetown estuaries, Loko-speakers north of the Freetown estuary to the Little Scarcies River, Temne-speakers found at the mouth of the Scarcies River, and Limba-speakers farther up the Scarcies. In the hilly savannah north of all of these lands were the Susu and Fula tribes. The Susu traded regularly with the coastal peoples along river valley routes, bringing salt, clothes woven by the Fula, iron work, and gold.

Portuguese ships began visiting regularly in the late 15th century, and for a while they maintained a fort on the north shore of the Freetown estuary. This estuary is one of the largest natural deep-water harbours in the world, and one of the few good harbours on West Africa's surf-battered "Windward Shore" (Liberia to Senegal). It soon became a favourite destination of European mariners, to shelter and replenish drinking water. Some of the Portuguese sailors stayed permanently, trading and intermarrying with the local people.

Slavery Edit

Slavery, and in particular the Atlantic slave trade, had a great effect on the region—socially, economically and politically—from the late 15th to the mid-19th centuries.

There had been lucrative trans-Saharan trade of slaves in West Africa from the 6th century. At its peak (c. 1350) the Mali Empire surrounded the region of modern-day Sierra Leone and Liberia, though the slave trade may not have significantly penetrated the coastal rainforest. The peoples who migrated into Sierra Leone from this time would have had greater contact with the indigenous slave trade, either practicing it or escaping it.

When Europeans first arrived at Sierra Leone, slavery among the African peoples of the area was believed to be rare. According to historian Walter Rodney, the Portuguese mariners kept detailed reports, and so it is likely if slavery had been an important local institution that the reports would have described it. There was mention of a very particular kind of slavery in the region, which was:

a person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a "slave" of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale. [6]

According to Rodney, such a person would likely have retained some rights and had some opportunity to rise in status as time passed.

If the Africans were not much interested in acquiring slaves, the Portuguese—as well as the Dutch, French, and English who arrived later—certainly were. Initially, their method was to cruise the coast, conducting quick kidnapping raids when opportunities presented themselves. Soon, however, they found locals willing to partner with them in these affairs: some chiefs were willing to part with a few of the less-desirable members of their tribes for a price others went into the war business—a large group of battle captives could be sold for a fortune in European rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets.

This early slaving was essentially an export business. The use of slaves as labourers by the local Africans appears to have developed only later. It may first have occurred under coastal chiefs in the late 18th century:

The slave owners were originally white and foreigners, but the late eighteenth century saw the emergence of powerful slave-trading chiefs, who were said to own large numbers of 'domestic slaves'. [7]

For example, in the late 18th century, chief William Cleveland, an anglo-scott had a large "slave town" on the mainland opposite the Banana Islands, whose inhabitants "were employed in cultivating extensive rice fields, described as being some of the largest in Africa at the time". [8] The existence of an indigenous slave town was recorded by an English traveler in 1823. Known in the Fula language as a rounde, it was connected with the Sulima Susu's capital city, Falaba. Its inhabitants worked at farming.

Rodney has postulated two means by which slaving for export could have caused a local practice of using slaves for labour to develop:

  1. Not all war captives offered for sale would have been bought by the Portuguese, so their captors had to find something else to do with them. Rodney believes that executing them was rare and that they would have been used for local labour.
  2. There is a time lag between the time a slave is captured and the time he or she is sold. Thus there would often have been a pool of slaves awaiting sale, who would have been put to work. [9]

There are possible additional reasons for the adoption of slavery by the locals to meet their labour requirements:

  1. The Europeans provided an example for imitation.
  2. Once slaving in any form is accepted, it may smash a moral barrier to exploitation and make its adoption in other forms seem a relatively minor matter.
  3. Export slaving entailed the construction of a coercive apparatus which could have been subsequently turned to other ends, such as policing a captive labour force.
  4. The sale of local produce (e.g., palm kernels) to Europeans opened a new sphere of economic activity. In particular, it created an increased demand for agricultural labour. Slavery was a way of mobilising an agricultural work force. [10]

This local African slavery was much less harsh and brutal than the slavery practiced by Europeans on, for example, the plantations of the United States, the West Indies, and Brazil. The local slavery has been described by anthropologist M. McCulloch:

[S]laves were housed close to the fresh tracts of land they cleared for their masters. They were considered part of the household of their owner, and enjoyed limited rights. It was not customary to sell them except for a serious offense, such as adultery with the wife of a freeman. Small plots of land were given to them for their own use, and they might retain the proceeds of crops they grew on these plots by this means it was possible for a slave to become the owner of another slave. Sometimes a slave married into the household of his master and rose to a position of trust there is an instance of a slave taking charge of a chiefdom during the minority of the heir. Descendants of slaves were often practically indistinguishable from freemen. [11]

Slaves were sometimes sent on errands outside the kingdoms of their masters and returned voluntarily. [12] Speaking specifically of the era around 1700, historian Christopher Fyfe relates that, "Slaves not taken in war were usually criminals. In coastal areas, at least, it was rare for anyone to be sold without being charged with a crime." [13]

Voluntary dependence reminiscent of that described in the early Portuguese documents mentioned at the beginning of this section was still present in the 19th century. It was called pawning Arthur Abraham describes a typical variety:

A freeman heavily in debt, and facing the threat of the punishment of being sold, would approach a wealthier man or chief with a plea to pay of[f] his debts 'while I sit on your lap'. Or he could give a son or some other dependent of his 'to be for you', the wealthy man or chief. This in effect meant that the person so pawned was automatically reduced to a position of dependence, and if he was never redeemed, he or his children eventually became part of the master's extended family. By this time, the children were practically indistinguishable from the real children of the master, since they grew up regarding one another as brothers. [14]

Some observers consider the term "slave" to be more misleading than informative when describing the local practice. Abraham says that in most cases, "subject, servant, client, serf, pawn, dependent, or retainer" would be more accurate. [15] Domestic slavery was abolished in Sierra Leone in 1928. McCulloch reports that at that time, amongst Sierra Leone's largest present-day ethnolinguistic group, the Mende, who then had about 560,000 people, about 15 per cent of the population (i.e., 84,000 people) were domestic slaves. He also says that "singularly little change followed the 1928 decree a fair number of slaves returned to their original homes, but the great majority remained in the villages in which their former masters had placed them or their parents." [16]

Export slavery remained a major business in Sierra Leone from the late 15th century to the mid-19th century. According to Fyfe, "it was estimated in 1789 that 74,000 slaves were exported annually from West Africa, about 38,000 by British firms." In 1788, a European apologist for the slave trade estimated the annual total exported from between the Nunez River (110 km north of Sierra Leone) and the Sherbro as 3,000. [17] The Atlantic slave trade was banned by the British in 1807, but illegal slave trading continued for several decades after that.

The Mane invasions of the mid-16th century had a profound impact on Sierra Leone. The Mane (also called Mani), southern members of the Mande language group, were a warrior people, well-armed and well-organized, who lived east and possibly somewhat north of present-day Sierra Leone, occupying a belt north of the coastal peoples. Sometime in the early 16th century they began moving south. According to some Mane who spoke to a Portuguese (Dornelas) in the late 16th century, their travels had begun as a result of the expulsion of their chief, a woman named Macario, from the imperial city in Mandimansa, their homeland. [18] Their first arrival at the coast was east of Sierra Leone, at least as far away as River Cess and likely farther. They advanced northwest along the coast toward Sierra Leone, conquering as they went. They incorporated large numbers of the people they conquered into their army, with the result that by the time they reached Sierra Leone, the rank and file of their army consisted mostly of coastal peoples the Mane were its commanding group.

The Mane used small bows, which enabled Manes to reuse their enemies' arrows against them, while the enemy could make no use of the Manes' short arrows. Rodney describes the rest of their equipment thus:

The rest of their arms consisted of large shields made of reeds, long enough to give complete cover to the user, two knives, one of which was tied to the left arm, and two quivers for their arrows. Their clothes consisted of loose cotton shirts with wide necks and ample sleeves reaching down to their knees to become tights. One striking feature of their appearance was the abundance of feathers stuck in their shirts and their red caps. [19]

By 1545, the Mane had reached Cape Mount, near the south-eastern corner of present-day Sierra Leone. Their conquest of Sierra Leone occupied the ensuing 15 to 20 years, and resulted in the subjugation of all or nearly all of the indigenous coastal peoples—who were known collectively as the Sapes—as far north as the Scarcies. The present demographics of Sierra Leone is largely a reflection of these two decades. The degree to which the Mane supplanted the original inhabitants varied from place to place. The Temne partly withstood the Mane onslaught, and kept their language, but became ruled by a line of Mane kings. The present-day Loko and Mende are the result of a more complete submersion of the original culture: their languages are similar, and both essentially Mande. In their oral tradition, the Mende describe themselves as being a mixture of two peoples: they say that their original members were hunters and fishers who populated the area sparsely in small peaceful settlements and that their leaders came later, in a recent historical period, bringing with them the arts of war, and also building larger, more permanent villages. This history receives support from the facts that their population consists of two different racial types, and their language and culture show signs of a layering of two different forms: they have both matrilineal and patrilineal inheritance, for instance. [20]

The Mane invasions militarised Sierra Leone. The Sapes had been un-warlike, but after the invasions, right until the late 19th century, bows, shields, and knives of the Mane type had become ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, as had the Mane battle technique of using squadrons of archers fighting in formation, carrying the large-style shields. [21] Villages became fortified. The usual method of erecting two or three concentric palisades, each 4–7 metres (12–20 ft) high, created a formidable obstacle to attackers—especially since, as some of the English observed in the 19th century, the thigh-thick logs planted into the earth to make the palisades often took root at the bottom and grew foliage at the top, so that the defenders occupied a living wall of wood. A British officer who observed one of these fortifications around the time of the 1898 Hut Tax war ended his description of it thus:

No one who has not seen these fences can realize the immense strength of them. The outer fence at Hahu I measured in several places, and found it to be from 2 to 3 feet thick, and most of the logs, or rather trees, of which it was formed, had taken root and were throwing out leaves and shoots.

He also said that English artillery could not penetrate all three fences. [22] At that time, at least among the Mende, "a typical settlement consisted of walled towns and open villages or towns surrounding it." [23]

After the invasions, the Mane sub-chiefs among whom the country had been divided began fighting among themselves. This pattern of activity became permanent: even after the Mane had blended with the indigenous population—a process which was completed in the early 17th century—the various kingdoms in Sierra Leone remained in a fairly continual state of flux and conflict. Rodney believes that a desire to take prisoners to sell as slaves to the Europeans was a major motivation to this fighting, and may even have been a driving force behind the original Mane invasions. Historian Kenneth Little concludes that the principal objective in the local wars, at least among the Mende, was plunder, not the acquisition of territory. [24] Abraham cautions that slave trading should not be exaggerated as a cause: the Africans had their own reasons to fight, with territorial and political ambitions present. [25] Motivations likely changed over time during the 350-year period.

The wars themselves were not exceptionally deadly. Set-piece battles were rare, and the fortified towns so strong that their capture was seldom attempted. Often the fighting consisted of small ambushes. [26]

In these years, the political system was that each large village along with its satellite villages and settlements would be headed by a chief. The chief would have a private army of warriors. Sometimes several chiefs would group themselves into a confederacy, acknowledging one of themselves as king (or high chief). Each paid the king fealty. If one were attacked, the king would come to his aid, and the king could adjudicate local disputes.

Despite their many political divisions, the people of the country were united by cultural similarity. One component of this was the Poro, an organisation common to many different kingdoms and ethnolinguistic groups. The Mende claim to be its originators, and there is nothing to contradict this. Possibly they imported it. The Temne claim to have imported it from the Sherbro or Bulom. The Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper knew of it in the 17th century. [27] It is often described as a "secret society", and this is partly true: its rites are closed to non-members, and what happens in the "Poro bush" is never disclosed. However, its membership is very broad: among the Mende, almost all men, and some women, are initiates. In recent years it has not (as far as is known) had a central organisation: autonomous chapters exist for each chiefdom or village. However, it is said that in pre-Protectorate days there was a "Grand Poro" with cross-chiefdom powers of making war and peace. [28] It is widely agreed that it has a restraining influence on the powers of the chiefs. [29] Headed by a fearsome principal spirit, the Gbeni, it plays a major role in the rite of passage of males from puberty to manhood. It imparts some education. In some areas, it had supervisory powers over trade, and the banking system, which used iron bars as a medium of exchange. It is not the only important society in Sierra Leone: the Sande is a female-only analogue of it there is also the Humoi which regulates sex, and the Njayei and the Wunde. The Kpa is a healing-arts collegium.

The impact of the Mane invasions on the Sapes was obviously considerable, in that they lost their political autonomy. There were other effects as well: trade with the interior was interrupted, and thousands were sold as slaves to the Europeans. In industry, a flourishing tradition in fine ivory carving was ended however, improved ironworking techniques were introduced.

In 17th century, Portuguese imperialism waned and, in Sierra Leone, the most significant European group became the British. By 1628, they had a "factory" (trading post) in the vicinity of Sherbro Island, about 50 km (30 mi) south-east from present-day Freetown. At that time the island was easily accessible from the coast, and elephants were still living there. In addition to ivory and captives, another commodity they purchased was camwood, a hard timber, from which also could be obtained a red dye. The Portuguese missionary, Baltasar Barreira, left Sierra Leone in 1610. Jesuits, and later in the century, Capuchins, continued the mission. By 1700 it had closed, although priests occasionally visited.

A company called the Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa received a charter from Charles II of England in 1663 and subsequently built a fort in the Sherbro and on Tasso Island in the Freetown estuary. They were plundered by the Dutch in 1664, the French in 1704, and pirates in 1719 and 1720. After the Dutch raid, the Tasso Island fort was moved to nearby Bunce Island, which was more defensible.

The Europeans made payments, called Cole, for rent, tribute, and trading rights, to the king of an area. At this time the local military advantage was still on the side of the Africans, and there is a 1714 report of a king seizing Company goods in retaliation for a breach of protocol. [30] Local Afro-Portuguese often acted as middlemen, the Europeans advancing them goods to trade to the local people, most often for ivory. In 1728, an overly aggressive Company governor united the Africans and Afro-Portuguese in hostility to him they burnt down the Bunce Island fort and it was not rebuilt until about 1750. The French wrecked it again in 1779.

During the 17th century the Temne ethnolinguistic group was expanding. Around 1600, a Mani still ruled the Loko kingdom (the area north of Port Loko Creek) and another ruled the upper part of the south shore of the Freetown estuary. The north shore of the estuary was under a Bullom king, and the area just east of Freetown on the peninsula was held by a non-Mani with a European name, Dom Phillip de Leon (who may have been a subordinate to his Mani neighbour). By the mid-17th century this situation had changed: Temne, not Bullom was spoken on the south shore, and ships stopping for water and firewood had to pay customs to the Temne king of Bureh who lived at Bagos town on the point between the Rokel River and Port Loko Creek. (The king may have considered himself a Mani—to this day, Temne chiefs have Mani-derived titles—but his people were Temne. The Bureh king in place in 1690 was called Bai Tura, Bai being a Mani form.) The Temne had thus expanded in a wedge toward the sea at Freetown, and now separated the Bulom to the north from the Mani and other Mande-speakers to the south and east.

In this period there are several reports of women occupying high positions. The king of the south shore used to leave one of his wives to rule when he was absent, and in the Sherbro there were female chiefs. In the early 18th century, a Bulom named Seniora Maria had her own town near Cape Sierra Leone.

During the 17th century, Muslim Fula from the Upper Niger and Senegal rivers moved into an area called Fouta Djallon (or Futa Jalon) in the mountainous region north of present-day Sierra Leone. They were to have an important impact on the peoples of Sierra Leone because they increased trade and also produced secondary population movements into Sierra Leone. Though the Muslim Fula first cohabited peaceably with the peoples already at Fouta Djallon, around 1725 they embarked on a war of domination, forcing the migration of many Susu, Yalunka, and non-Muslim Fula.

Susu—some already converted to Islam—came south into Sierra Leone, in turn displacing Limba from north-west Sierra Leone and driving them into north-central Sierra Leone where they continue to live. Some Susu moved as far south as the Temne town of Port Loko, only 60 km (37 mi) upriver from the Atlantic. Eventually a Muslim Susu family called Senko supplanted the town's Temne rulers. Other Susu moved westward from Fouta Djallon, eventually dominating the Baga, Bulom, and Temne north of the Scarcies River.

The Yalunka in Fouta Djallon first accepted Islam, then rejected it and were driven out. They went into north-central Sierra Leone and founded their capital at Falaba in the mountains near the source of the Rokel. It is still an important town, about 20 km (12 mi) south of the Guinea border. Other Yalunka went somewhat farther south and settled amongst the Koranko, Kissi, and Limba.

Besides these groups, who were more-or-less unwilling emigrants, a considerable variety of Muslim adventurers went forth from Fouta Djallon. A Fula called Fula Mansa (mansa meaning king) became ruler of the Yoni country 100 km (62 mi) east of present-day Freetown. Some of his Temne subjects fled south to the Banta country between the middle reaches of the Bagu and Jong rivers, where they became known as the Mabanta Temne.

In 1652, the first slaves in North America were brought from Sierra Leone to the Sea Islands off the coast of the southern United States. During the 18th century, there was a thriving slave trade from Sierra Leone to the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia where their rice-farming skills made them particularly valuable.

Britain and British seafarers—including Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Frobisher and Captain Brown—played a major role in the transatlantic trade in captured Africans between 1530 and 1810. The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which ended the Spanish War of Succession (1701–1714), had an additional clause (the Asiento) that granted Britain (among other things) the exclusive rights over the shipment of captured Africans across the Atlantic. Over 10 million captured Africans were shipped to the Caribbean Islands and the Americas and many more died during the raids, the long marches to the coast and on the infamous middle passage due to the inhumane conditions in slave ships.

The Abolition of Slavery In Britain

On 28th August 1833 a very important act received its Royal Assent. The Slavery Abolition Law would finally be enacted, after years of campaigning, suffering and injustice. This act was a crucial step in a much wider and ongoing process designed to bring an end to the slave trade.

Only a few decades previously, in 1807 another act had been passed which had made it illegal to purchase slaves directly from the African continent. Nevertheless, the practice of slavery remained widespread and legal in the British Caribbean.

The fight to end the slave trade was a long drawn out battle which brought to the surface a host of issues ranging from politics and economics to more social and cultural concerns.

The decision to bring the practice of slavery to an end was a contentious one. Britain had been engaged in slavery since the sixteenth century, with economic prosperity being secured through the use of slave-grown products such as sugar and cotton. The British Empire relied on cultivating products in order to trade in a global market: the use of slaves was paramount to this process.

Slaves cutting the sugar cane, Antigua, 1823

By the late 1700’s, times were changing, social norms were challenged and the stage for revolution in Europe was set. Concerns over equality, humanity and the rights of man gave way to individuals championing the cause of abolishing the antiquated and barbaric practice of slavery.

The campaign in Britain was led by significant Quaker anti-slavery groups who made public their concerns and brought it to the attention of politicians who were in a position to enact real change.
In May 1772 a significant court judgement by Lord Mansfield in the case of James Somerset, who was an enslaved African, versus Charles Stewart, a Customs Officer. In this case, the slave who had been purchased in Boston and then transported with Stewart to England had managed to escape. Unfortunately, he was later recaptured and subsequently imprisoned on a ship bound for Jamaica.

Somerset’s cause was taken up by three godparents, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade who made an application to the courts to determine whether there was a legitimate reason for his detention.

In May, Lord Mansfield gave his verdict ruling that slaves could not be transported from England against their will. The case therefore gave great impetus to those campaigners such as Granville Sharp who saw the ruling as an example for why slavery would be unsupported by English law.

Nevertheless, the ruling did not advocate abolition of slavery completely. Those backing Somerset argued that colonial laws which permitted slavery were not in conjunction with the common law of Parliament, thus making the practice unlawful. The case in question was still argued very much along legal lines rather than humanitarian or social concerns, however it would mark an important step in a trajectory of events which ultimately culminated in abolition.

The case had gained a great deal of attention amongst the public, so much so that by 1783 a strong anti-slavery movement was being formed. More individual cases such as that of a slave taken to Canada by American loyalists, sparked new legislation in 1793 against slavery, the first of its kind to take place in the British Empire.

William Wilberforce, 1794

Back in Britain, the abolition of slavery was a cause championed by William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament and philanthropist who was one of the most important and influential figures. He was soon joined by likeminded individuals who would bring the matter into the public sphere as well as the political sphere.

Other anti-slavery activists such as Hannah More and Granville Sharp were persuaded to join Wilberforce, which soon led to the foundation of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Key figures within the group included James Eliot, Zachary Macaulay and Henry Thornton who were referred to by many as the Saints and later, the Clapham Sect of which Wilberforce became the accepted leader.

On 13th March 1787 during a dinner involving several important figures amongst the Clapham Sect community, Wilberforce agreed to bring the issue to parliament.

Wilberforce would subsequently give many speeches in the House of Commons which included twelve motions condemning the slave trade. Whilst his cause described the appalling conditions experienced by slaves which were in direct opposition to his Christian beliefs, he did not advocate a total abolition of the trade. At this point, however, the biggest obstacle was not the ins and outs of the motion but parliament itself which continued to stall on the matter.

By 1807, with slavery garnering great public attention as well as in the courts, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act. This was a momentous step, however it still was not the end goal as it simply outlawed the trade of slaves but not slavery itself.

Once enacted, the legislation worked through the imposition of fines which sadly did little to deter slave owners and traders who had great financial incentives in ensuring that the practice continued. With lucrative gains to be made, trafficking between Caribbean Islands would persist for several years. By 1811, a new law would help to curb this practice somewhat with the introduction of Slave Trade Felony Act which made slavery a felony.

The Royal Navy was also called in to assist in the implementation through the establishment of the West African Squadron which patrolled the coast. Between 1808 and 1860 it successfully freed 150,000 Africans bound for a life of enslavement. However, there was still a long way to go.

One often overlooked factor in bringing an end to the practice of the slave trade was the role played by those already enslaved. A growing resistance movement was developing amongst the slaves themselves, so much so that the French colony of St Domingue had been seized by the slaves themselves in a dramatic uprising leading to the establishment of Haiti.

Depiction of the Battle of Ravine-à-Couleuvres, 23rd February 1802, during the slave revolt in St Domingue (Haiti).

This was an era for enacting great social change, the Age of Reason, ushered in by the Enlightenment which brought together philosophies which catapulted social injustices to the forefront of people’s minds. Europe was experiencing great upheaval: the French Revolution had brought with it ideas of the equal rights of man and challenged the previously accepted social hierarchies.

The impact of this new European social conscience and self-awareness also impacted enslaved communities who had always put up resistance but now felt emboldened to claim their rights. Toussaint Louverture leading the revolt in Haiti was not the only example of such a stirring of feelings revolts in other locations followed including Barbados in 1816, Demerara in 1822 and Jamaica in 1831.

The Baptist War, as it became known, in Jamaica originated with a peaceful strike led by the Baptist Minister Samuel Sharpe, however it was brutally suppressed which led to loss of life and property. Such was the extent of the violence that the British Parliament was forced to hold two inquiries that would make important inroads in establishing the Slavery Abolition Act a year later.

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society

Meanwhile, the Anti-Slavery Society had its first meeting back in the UK which helped to bring together Quakers and Anglicans. As part of this group, a range of campaigns involving meetings, posters and speeches were arranged, helping to get the word out and draw attention to the issue. This would ultimately prove successful as it brought together a range of people who rallied behind the cause.

By 26th July 1833, the wheels were in motion for a new piece of legislation to be passed, however sadly William Wilberforce would die only three days later.

As part of the act, slavery was abolished in most British colonies which resulted in around 800,000 slaves being freed in the Caribbean as well as South Africa and a small amount in Canada. The law took effect on 1st August 1834 and put into practice a transitional phase which included reassigning roles of slaves as “apprentices” which was later brought to an end in 1840.

Sadly, in practical terms the act did not seek to include territories “in the possession of the East India Company, or Ceylon, or Saint Helena”. By 1843 these conditions were lifted. A longer process however ensued which not only included freeing slaves but also finding a way to compensate the slave owners for loss of investment.

The British government sought around £20 million to pay for the loss of slaves, many of those in receipt of this compensation were from the higher echelons of society.

Meanwhile whilst the apprenticeships were enforced, peaceful protests by those affected would continue until their freedom was secured. By 1st August 1838 this was finally achieved with full legal emancipation granted.

The abolition of slavery in the British Empire thus brought in a new era of change in politics, economics and society. The movement towards abolition had been an arduous journey and in the end many factors played a significant role in ending the slave trade.

Key individuals both in Britain and overseas, parliamentary figures, enslaved communities, religious figures and people who felt the cause was worth fighting for all helped to bring about a seismic shift in social awareness and conscience.

Thus, the trajectory of events leading to the abolition of slavery remain a significant chapter in British and global history, with important lessons for humanity as a whole.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

The Ex-Slaves Who Fought with the British - HISTORY

by Marika Sherwood (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

2007 marked the bicentennial of an extraordinary event. In that year, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. While the anniversary passed without too much comment in the United States, it was commemorated widely in Britain. Out of that cultural moment has come Marika' Sherwood's provocative new book, After Abolition.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic to death or degradation as slaves in the Americas. Finally in 1807, thanks to the impassioned efforts of the Anti-Slavery Society, the British Parliament took the great step of making the slave trade illegal – a story recently told in the movie Amazing Grace. Then, in 1834, Parliament ended slavery in British colonies. Many see 1807 and 1834 as the first great victories in the campaign for human rights. But were they? Sherwood suggests that the British abolition of slavery has a badly tarnished legacy.

After Abolition reveals the extent to which Britain continued to profit from slavery and the slave trade even after it had outlawed both practices, and it uncovers a hidden history of depravity, hypocrisy, and willful blindness. Sherwood, an honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, is also a founding member of the Black & Asian Studies Association in the UK. After Abolition makes the claim that Britain has used the heroic myth of 1807 as an excuse to avoid facing up to continued British involvement with slavery.

The Act of 1807 had made it illegal for British subjects to buy or sell slaves, or otherwise be involved in the trade. Many, however, simply evaded its restrictions. Slave ships were regularly fitted out in British ports like Liverpool or Bristol. In fact, until 1811 carrying slaving equipment like shackles was not considered proof of involvement in the slave trade. Even after it became impossible for slave ships to be fully equipped in British ports, ships continued to fit out there and load their slaving gear just outside British waters.

Often the law was evaded by British ships operating under the Spanish or Portuguese flag, since neither country had yet outlawed the trade. While Britain, and later other nations, supported an Anti-Slaving Squadron to catch slavers off the West African coast, many of the ships they confiscated were re-sold to known slavers. Even where the slavers were not themselves British, they often relied on British credit and shipyards. After all, there was still a thriving market for slaves in Brazil, the Spanish colonies, and the United States. Millions of Africans were exported as slaves after 1808, many of them carried in ships financed, built, or equipped in Britain

According to Sherwood, the British Emancipation Act of 1834 was equally half-hearted. It ended slavery only in the Caribbean, not the rest of the British Empire. Slavery only became illegal in India in 1848, on the Gold Coast in 1874, and in Nigeria in 1901. In the late nineteenth century, colonial soldiers and police in Africa were often slaves themselves. Even after it was officially prohibited, slavery continued under other names as indentured service or forced labor. As late as 1948, colonial officials privately acknowledged that domestic slavery existed in northern Ghana.

Equally damning is the fact that after 1834, British investment continued in places where slavery remained legal, like Cuba and Brazil. In the 1840s, 20% of British sugar imports came from Cuba. British merchants and bankers lived in Cuba and helped finance the trade. British consuls, or their families, even owned slaves. Similarly, Brazilian mines and plantations that relied on slave labor were financed by British capital. By 1860, British imports from Brazil were worth £4.5 million every year (£99 million in 2005).
After Abolition shows how, despite the laws of 1807 and 1834, Britain was generally apathetic about the fate of African slaves. In the 1840s, despite the pleas of the Anti-Slavery Society, Parliament reduced the duty (tax) on imported slave-grown sugar to the same rate as sugar grown by free workers – Lt. Yule of the navy's Anti-Slavery Squadron said it could have been called "a Bill for the Better Promotion of Slavery and the Slave Trade." At the same time, the industrial Midlands imported vast quantities of raw cotton from the USA and Brazil, where it was grown by slaves.
Beyond British business involvement in slaving there was also the government's refusal, despite numerous committees of inquiry in the House of Commons, to close the obvious loopholes in its anti-slavery legislation. The Anti-Slavery Squadron which was supposed to enforce the Act was soon outmatched by newer, faster, slave trading ships. Sherwood wonders why, having agreed to abolish the trade, Parliament was so slow to make their abolition effective. Was it because of the continuing importance of slavery and the slave trade to the British economy? After Abolition suggests that more of the Industrial Revolution was built on the backs of slavery than people would like to admit.
The story After Abolition tells is a horrifying one, but it is still incomplete. As Sherwood admits, she has uncovered more questions than answers. Just how extensive was surreptitious British involvement in the post-1807 slave trade and to what extent did trade and investment in slave-holding countries support British industrialization? Coming close on the heels of the bicentenary of the British abolition of slave trade, Sherwood's book raises serious questions about the extent of British involvement in the slave trade after 1807. Those interested in British or African history will find After Abolition a worthwhile read.

Rebel Slaves and Resistance in the Revolutionary Caribbean

The history of slave rebels and resistance in the Caribbean is a rich and complicated story. Enslaved people in the Caribbean resorted to active resistance much more often than their North American and South American counterparts. Haiti (known then as Saint-Domingue), Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dutch Guianas were particularly prone to slave revolts, averaging one major revolt every two years between 1731 and 1832. No other slave societies have quite so complex a history of resistance as those in the Caribbean. Historian Sir Hilary Beckles has said, “the many slave revolts and plots… between 1638 and 1838 could be conceived of as the � Years’ War’– one protracted struggle launched by Africans and their Afro-West Indian progeny against slave owners.” In this week’s episode, we’ll cover the middle half of this 200-year long struggle. We’ll talk about enslaved Caribbeans’ suffering, their achievements, and their alliances with free people of color. But we will also discuss the realities of their violence, and their complicated legacies in revolutionary politics, race relations, and international diplomacy.

Listen, download, watch on YouTube, or scroll down for the transcript.

Transcript for: Slave Rebels and Resistance in the Revolutionary Caribbean

Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes

Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Marissa: On August 30, 1789, hundreds of enslaved people gathered along the waterfront in St. Pierre, Martinique. They had just received news that the King of France had abolished slavery but their masters denied that any declaration took place. The rebels knew their masters would resist this decision, even if they had to dethrone the king (which would ironically happen within the space of three years). Enraged slaves from all across Martinique announced their commitments to violent revolt should their masters deny them their freedom. The governor of the island later described the rebels on the waterfront as “armed with the instruments they used to cut their sugarcane, refused to work, saying loudly that they were free.” The governor addressed the rebels, telling them that this news was erroneous, that the king had not freed them. The subjects of slavery and black citizenship had merely been added to the agenda for the Estates-General which had convened that May in Paris.

The rebels responded by writing two letters to colonial authorities. The first said, “We know that we are free and that you accept that rebellious people resist the orders of the King… We will die for this liberty we want it and will gain it at whatever price, even through the use of mortars, cannons, and rifles.” It went on to say of slavery that “if this prejudice is not entirely annihilated, there will be torrents of blood as powerful as the gutters that flow along the roads. “ It was signed “nous, Negres.” (which in English is “Us, Negroes.”)

Sarah: Astonishingly, the enslaved rebels had not yet received news of the storming of the Bastille six weeks earlier. But they were aware of a constitutional crisis in the metropole and, in their eyes, the ideological turmoil in Paris had a clear relevance to their ambitions of freedom. In a second letter to the governor, the rebels appealed to a renewed drive for equality and justice among Frenchmen:

“The entire nation of the black slaves united together has only one wish, one desire for independence, and all slaves with one unanimous voice articulate only one cry, the demand for a liberty that they have earned justly through centuries of suffering and ignominious servitude. This is no longer a nation that is blinded by ignorance and that trembles at the threat of the lightest punishments its suffering has enlightened it and has determined it to spill to its last drop of blood rather than support the yoke of slavery, a horrible yoke attached by the laws, by humanity, and by all of nature, by the divinity and by our good King Louis XVI. We hope it will be condemned by the illustrious Viomenil. Your response, great general, will decide our destiny and that of the colony.”

Marissa: The “news” of abolition in Martinique was indeed a rumor. It would two years before free people of color were granted legal equality to whites, and another year after that before the French empire would (temporarily) abolish slavery. The colonial militia quickly crushed this rebellion. Twenty-three enslaved people were tortured for their participation and eight were executed. Still, the rebels’ letters survive and they suggest that the French, and American, revolutionary rhetoric had radicalized enslaved Africans and creoles in the Caribbean.

Enslaved people in the Caribbean did resort to active resistance much more often than their North American and South American counterparts. Haiti (known then as St. Domingue), Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dutch Guianas were particularly prone to slave revolts, averaging one major revolt every two years between 1731 and 1832. No other slave societies have quite so complex a history of resistance as those in the Caribbean. Historian Sir Hilary Beckles has said, “the many slave revolts and plots… between 1638 and 1838 could be conceived of as the � Years’ War’– one protracted struggle launched by Africans and their Afro-West Indian progeny against slave owners.” 1 In this week’s episode, we’ll cover the middle half of this 200-year long struggle. We’ll talk about enslaved Caribbeans’ suffering, their achievements, and their alliances with free people of color. But we will also discuss the realities of their violence, and their complicated legacies in revolutionary politics, race relations, and international diplomacy.

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: In Jamaica, some time in the early 1770s, historian and slave-owning planter Edward Long sat at his writing desk and resentfully penned a description of Caribbean slaves. They were, he said: “irascible, conceited, proud, indolent, lascivious, credulous, and very artful.” 2 English-born Jamaican planter John Dovaston agreed, blaming the Congo, the homeland of many of the Caribbean’s enslaved Africans. Dovaston recommended against using Congolese slaves if one was able, calling them “the most vicious and desperate slaves” who “if young their disposition is so ill-suited to slavery and if old they will die before they will submit.” 3 Dovaston recommended instead, that planters buy slaves from the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) to use as field hands because they were “dull and stupid and only fit for Labour.”

Marissa: You probably don’t need me to tell you that Dovaston’s hypothesis about ethnically-determined personalities does not hold water. The tumultuous relationships between free planters and their enslaved Africans and creoles in the Caribbean has little to do with any inborn trait among any African ethnic group. The comparative rebelliousness of the enslaved people in the Caribbean stems from fundamental differences between the ways in which Caribbean and North American slave societies were organized. First, Caribbean slave societies were much more diverse than those in North America. When the Spanish first arrived in the Caribbean in the 1490s, they recognized five major native groups occupying the archipelago and outlying islands. But linguists have discovered that they spoke at least 9 different dialects of Tainos. So these 5 groups were more heterogeneous than we might suspect.

On top of that complicated landscape, there were more than 7,000 islands (most of them tiny and uninhabited) which were claimed by 5 different European nations: the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, and Denmark. Following European conquest, these societies continued to diversify. Both ethnically and agriculturally. The Europeans transported and enslaved Africans from approximately 18 ethnic groups. Enslaved people living in the Caribbean produced sugar, yes, but also indigo, coffee, tobacco, cotton, ginger, and cassava. Many also bred cattle. Racial categories were also much more blurry. Whites, blacks, and indigenous peoples forged relationships and produced creole children. Creole in this context means “born in the Caribbean” irrespective of race. Colors did not necessarily indicate a person’s legal status. Of course European whites were always free because they ran the show. But free planters could be white, “mulatto”, or black and for the most part, they identified with other planters rather than enslaved Africans or creoles.

Sarah: Second, many slave-owners in the Caribbean belonged to an absentee planter class. Rather than settlers, Caribbean planters tended to be venture capitalists who established plantations in the West Indies to diversify their investment portfolios. They operated their lucrative sugar, coffee, or indigo plantations from abroad and lived on vast European estates which they financed from returns on their Caribbean investments. This system was especially common among British, French and Dutch planters. By the eighteenth century, most Caribbean plantations had converted to lucrative cash crops, namely sugar and tobacco, and wealthy Europeans passed down their plantations to their heirs, who stayed in Europe and oftentimes never visited the Caribbean even once.

Shipping Sugar, William Clark, 1823 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Absentee owners were, understandably, estranged from the people they enslaved on their plantations. They shared no common spaces, daily routines, or personal negotiations like North American slaves did with their masters. This dynamic intensified over the 17th century and early 18th century. The estrangement between master and slave may have made harsh working conditions even more prevalent on plantations owned by absentees. Planters were not around to assess the welfare of their field workers or to make small adjustments in their lives that might have assuaged their resentment and anger. What’s more is that Caribbean planters favored “unseasoned” slaves — meaning Africans who were new to the West Indies and enslaved more recently. They were called “unseasoned” because they were thought to be less accustomed to the rigors of slave work in a new world.

Planters reasoned that if they kept their plantations populated with newcomers, it might be harder for enslaved people to form strong bonds and organize against their master. This preference, combined with the harsh conditions of sugarcane planting (listen to Averill’s episode on Sugar and the slave trade) meant that mortality rates were very high. This, in turn, necessitated the importation of more “unseasoned” slaves from Africa, and the cycle continued. Planters mistakenly assumed that this constant influx of enslaved Africans would impede rebellion. We know now that plantations with higher creole populations (enslaved workers of various races who were born in the Caribbean) had fewer instances of slave revolt. The enslaved lived under harsh regimes, to be sure, but they were also able to form more bonds among themselves than slaves on smaller plantations or slaves who lived under the watchful eye of their masters every minute of the day.

Marissa: Caribbean slave populations were generally unable to maintain themselves through natural increase which was a huge problem on a sugarcane plantation. Planting sugarcane was a massive operation. For example, in 1873, the plantation of Juan Poey in Las Canas, Cuba (which grew 1,560 acres of sugarcane) required 450 enslaved black workers, 230 Chinese indentured servants, 500 oxen, and 40 horses working the land at all times. These massive labor requirements meant that Caribbean sugar plantations were larger, and served by more enslaved Africans than most operations in North America.

The constant turnover, the high population of foreign-born enslaved Africans, greater opportunity for unsupervised association among the enslaved, and the lack of outlets for grievances made absentee plantations in the Caribbean hotbeds of unrest. This unrest was intensified by the high African to white ratio which resulted from all of the above. For example, Jamaica was seized by the British in 1655. At that time, there was 1 African to every white person living on the island. By 1703, there were 6 Africans for every white. And by 1739, there were 10 Africans to every white person in Jamaica.

Sarah: The importance of absenteeism to the frequency of slave revolts cannot be overstated. Absenteeism was much less common, practically unheard of, in the Spanish Caribbean. The Spanish also favored enslaved creoles somewhat more than “unseasoned” Africans. In the 1760s the switch to sugar planting meant that Spanish plantations tended to include fewer creoles than they had in past centuries but even then, the Spanish were known to put considerable effort into seasoning new enslaved Africans. Never in the Spanish Caribbean did black populations significantly outnumber white populations. These critical differences had a huge impact on the Spanish Caribbean’s vulnerability to unrest. Until about 1810, the Spanish remained immune to slave revolts (while British, French and Dutch holdings had been struggling with them for over a century). The Spanish were, however, the last to abolish slavery in their Caribbean holdings (1873 for Puerto Rico and 1886 in Cuba).

Marissa: I know I said that the Spanish Caribbean remained practically immune to slave revolts during this critical period of 1638-1838 and that is true. But that doesn’t mean that enslaved people in the Spanish Caribbean did not resist. In fact, it was in Barbados, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico where the earliest instances of mass resistance began. Enslaved people, African, indigenous, and creole, found that they could escape their plantations and form maroons, which are communities of fugitive slaves in remote areas. The term “maroon” comes from the Spanish word cimmaron, which means “living on mountain tops.” By 1547, there were about 7,000 maroons living in these remote communities (out of 30,000 enslaved people total on the island). So this was happening in large numbers.

In 1697, the island of Hispaniola was divided in half by the Spanish and French (Santo Domingo and Saint-Domingue). Maroon communities on the island strategically used the Spanish and French against each other. After 1650, maroon communities became increasingly involved in politics and continued to emerge on several other Caribbean islands. After 1700, they resembled bands of guerilla warriors headed by one or two chieftains. Jamaican Maroons were particularly formidable in the first half of the 18th century. Their wars with the British are the first example of slave revolts that we’ll talk about today.

Leonard Parkinson, Maroon Leader, Jamaica, 1796 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The British acquired Jamaica in 1655, and Spanish planters freed their slaves, as a final “eff-you” to their rival European power. The British were aware of how powerful the Jamaican maroons had become because their possession of the island hinged on the support of their leader, Juan de Bolas. De Bolas signed a treaty with the British in 1658, agreeing that he would stop furnishing fighters for the Spanish in exchange for control over inland territory on the west of the island. The Jamaican maroons continued to swell. In 1673, for example, 300 slaves escaped from St. Anne’s parish and sought asylum in the maroon communities.

Marissa: By the 17-teens, there were several permanent maroon communities living on Jamaica. One of these was led by Queen Nanny (Nanny is a bastardization of Nannani- an Akan word that means ancestress and queen mother). Queen Nanny was an Ashanti queen and Obeah priestess born in the Gold Coast region of Africa (present-day Ghana) sometime in the last quarter of the 17th century. The Ashanti are a sub-group within the Akan ethno-linguistic group common to West Africa. Nanny and her five brothers: Cudjoe, Accompong, Johnny, Cuffy, and Quao were transported by the British to Jamaica sometime around 1700. It is unclear if they were biological siblings. She is often portrayed as an enslaved African but there is significant evidence that she was never enslaved. European powers did occasionally enlist free Africans for certain initiatives in the colonies. Since they were prominent members of Akan society, maybe they got involved in one of these diplomatic initiatives. It’s also possible that they escaped British custody before they were officially purchased in Jamaica. We aren’t sure.

They did all abandon the British at some point and assumed leadership of several maroon towns and dedicated themselves to building armies of escaped slaves. Nanny became the spiritual and military leader of Moor Town (also known as Blue Mountain Rebel Town). Its name was eventually changed to Nanny Town. In 1728, the British sent more troops and a new governor to Jamaica who escalated the violent conflict between the British and the maroons. Maroon assaults on British outposts resulted in immediate retaliation by the British militias and Queen Nanny’s ambushed them, which was essentially a declaration of war. Queen Nanny went on to command 300 freedom fighters in a war against the British colonial militia. This became known as the First Maroon War.

Sarah: Queen Nanny was a skilled strategist. She taught her band of maroons to camouflage themselves among the foliage of the Blue Mountains. She also organized a complex network of spies and lookouts who she trained to communicate with the rest of the group using the abeng, a horn which allows people to communicate over long distances. Queen Nanny’s guerilla tactics inflicted huge losses on the colonial militia. Queen Nanny and the British mounted near-annual assaults on each other throughout all of the 1730s. The British occupied Nanny Town twice but Queen Nanny and her men just continued to move deeper into the mountains. She was said to be able to catch bullets in her hands or between her thighs, heal wounded warriors, and produce charms which made her soldiers invulnerable. Recognizing Queen Nanny’s charisma, military expertise, and the fact that the maroons had little to lose, the British agreed to sign a treaty with the Jamaican maroons in 1739 and 1741.

The treaty granted the maroons autonomy and British support so long as they stopped helping enslaved Africans escape their captivity and protected the island from invasion. It also required that the maroons help capture escaped slaves and return them to their masters. This last clause split the maroon armies into different camps. Queen Nanny opposed any agreement which would challenge the autonomy of Jamaica’s maroon communities. Cudjoe and Trelawny Town eventually signed the treaty but the other maroon communities declined. A land grant treaty was drawn up in Queen Nanny’s name that same year but historians are nearly certain it was forged. Her resistance is well documented and she never complied with its terms. The maroons were also supposed to pay the British for the land grants they received. They never did.

Marissa: The treaty sparked bitter resentment among many maroons. This resentment simmered for over 50 years (this is important for the Second Maroon War which we’ll get to a little later in the show). Queen Nanny died sometime in the 1750s. During her lifetime, it is estimated that she assisted in the escape of 800 enslaved people from Jamaican plantations. Yet after Queen Nanny’s death and the deaths of her brothers, the maroons continued to train in the style of Akan guerilla warriors and maintained a commitment to obeah. Queen Nanny and the Maroon Wars are such an excellent story of resistance because they combined active resistance (in the form of warfare against the British) with passive resistance (by maintaining their social and cultural ties with west African religious and military life). Queen Nanny based her leadership on the matrilineal model of Akan queenship.

The most fascinating part of this story is that, thanks to the land grant treaties the maroons signed with the British, Jamaican maroon communities retained their legal autonomy through time to this day. They also continue to practice many elements of Akan culture. (I should note that in historical documents, they were not recognized as Akan but as “Coromantee” people. This is because Akan groups were held captive in a town called Coromantee before they were transported to the colonies and sold as slaves. This designation has kind of stuck. Obeah is now colloquially referred to as “Kromantee religion”, for example.) As an African woman who fought for the freedom of enslaved people, Queen Nanny is one of Jamaica’s national symbols of pride. Her face appears on the Jamaican $500 bill.

Sarah: Queen Nanny’s example inspired one of the largest, most influential slave rebellions in Caribbean history: Takyi’s Rebellion. Takyi was born into the Fante ethnic group in West Africa (also part of the Akan). He was a high-ranking chieftain, spoke fluent English, and admitted to selling enemies from other Akan states (including Ashanti- Queen Nanny’s people) to be enslaved by the British. At some point, his people lost a war with another Akan state and he was himself sold into slavery under the British. While he was enslaved in Jamaica, Takyi rose to the position of overseer on his plantation. It was from this position of relative autonomy that he planned his rebellion, with the aid of many other Akan insurgents.

In May 1760, Takyi and his allies killed their masters, occupied their plantations (named Frontier and Trinity), and seized the munitions stores at Fort Haldane. They took over two more plantations (Heywood Hall and Esher) that same day. By the next morning, hundreds of enslaved people joined the cause. When the growing group of rebels stopped to celebrate their success, a slave from Esher plantation fled to the closest authorities for help. As they planned their next move, an Obeahman spread a powder over the bodies of the other rebels and told them that it would make it impossible for the British to hurt them.

Marissa: Notified by the enslaved man from Esher, dozens of mounted militia confronted the rebels. They were accompanied by maroon contingents who were (because of the treaties with Britain) treaty-bound to aid in quelling the rebellion. The Obeahman boasted that he and the rebels were untouchable. The British responded by seizing the Obeahman, executing him in front of the rebels and hanging his body by his own mask in site of the rebel camp. This brutality convinced most of the rebels to return to their plantations. But Takyi and two dozen other rebels renewed their attacks.

During a session of guerilla fighting in the forest, a maroon marksman called Davy killed Takyi and brought his head to the British as evidence of his death. Takyi’s role was finished but several other bands of rebels renewed the effort in wake of Takyi’s death. One was a warrior queen called Akua (the British called her Cubah so you’ll see it both ways). Akua was another Ashanti queen who was elected by the enslaved population in Kingston to lead the subsequent rebellion. Akua held court in Kingston (which is on the windward side of the island– the opposite side from where Takyi had begun the rebellion). Akua was outfitted with all of the traditional markers of Akan queenship. Before her campaign even began, they were discovered and she was deported for conspiracy. She foiled her own deportation by bribing the ship captain to transport her to the other side of the island where Takyi’s men were still fighting the British. She fought alongside Takyi’s allies until she was captured and executed two months later.

Sarah: It took the British two months to subdue Takyi’s Rebellion fully. And the consequences were grave. Sixty whites and 400 enslaved blacks were killed. Takyi’s allies were captured and either burned alive or hung in cages at the Kingston parade where they remained until they died of dehydration or starvation. The rebellion was put down by the British brutally and decisively but from that point forward, Caribbean planters were preoccupied by the possibility of revolt. Island security was tightened slave meetings were limited and monitored closely, weapon access was restricted to whites, and obeah was outlawed. It was in response to Takyi’s Rebellion that Edward Long… that white guy quoted at the top of the show, wrote his harsh condemnations of Coromantee slaves.

Caribbean planters panicked that their slaves would rise up and kill them and their families. This fear was tempered by the fact that few of them actually lived on their plantations but still, they worried constantly that their free workers (and probably their profits) would be damaged by rebellious slaves. For a short time, Takyi’s Rebellion made British and French nationals question whether sugar cultivation was worth this trouble. Their uncertainty was aggravated by their being several years into the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) with France. They were unsure that the empire could withstand additional unrest.

Marissa: Horrified British planters quickly formed a “West Indian Lobby” which blocked abolitionist MPs from introducing legislation to abolish the trade. This is a super important part of the history of slavery because historians have shown that in Britain, popular opinion had swung in favor of abolition by the 1760s, perhaps because of the violent complexity of the trade which was exposed by Takyi’s war. Yet the lobby was able to delay abolition for almost 50 years. This post-Takyi lobby was so powerful (thanks to all of their rebellion anxiety and sugar income) that the trade continued without the support of the general public.

Sarah: European planters’ anxiety was amplified by the American Revolution which began 16 years later. It was their fear of slave rebellion that convinced Caribbean planters to condemn the American war for independence. Absentee planters had more influence with the British Parliament and French Crown than American colonists. Americans’ grievances did not resonate enough with them to risk the loss of metropolitan support. Caribbean planters relied on imperial resources to defend their land and protect whites from further revolts.

This dependence on metropolitan resources became extremely complicated after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The next slave revolts we’re going to discuss are those associated with the Haitian Revolution. This conflict was long (over a decade long) and mind-numbingly complex. We will not be getting into all the complexities. We’ll save that for a different episode. But we can’t talk about Caribbean slave revolts and ignore those that are now seen as parts of this larger revolutionary conflict in the French colony known as Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Now this conflict lasted over a decade and is actually a combination of civil war, slave rebellion, imperial war, and several wars of liberation. But the slave insurrection in Haiti is the critical event around which Europeans and creole planters were forced to conduct diplomacy and armed conflict.

Marissa: The French Revolution inspired and radicalized the free blacks in Saint-Domingue. They were already resentful because many free blacks had served for the British during the 1779 Savannah campaign. When they returned home, they expected an improvement in their status among white planters. Many free people of color on St. Domingue were themselves slave owners. They felt like they had much in common with the white planters on the island and sought solidarity with them. White planters disagreed. Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes were wealthy mulatto planters from prominent, educated families. Chavannes had served in the military for the British in the 1770s. Both men resented the prejudice shown toward them by white planters on St. Domingue. When news of the outbreak of the French Revolution reached St. Domingue, Ogé and Chavannes wondered if they could use this chaos in the metropole to their advantage, to earn the status and acceptance enjoyed by white planters.

Vincent Ogé | Public Domain / WIkimedia Commons

Ogé visited Paris at precisely the moment when the King had called up the Estates General. He approached a block of white planters called Club Massiac but they rejected his vision of a race-neutral society in St. Domingue. So Ogé was compelled to ally himself with Les Amis des Noirs, an anti-slavery group. As the French attempted to reorganize the empire according to republican ideology, the Amis des Noirs proposed voting rights for free blacks in the colonial assemblies which were meant to represent the interests of colonists. Even though he and other mulattoes from St. Domingue were anti-abolition, white Europeans were just unable to see past the color of Ogé’s skin. Britons were convinced that racial neutrality would disrupt the slave trade and ultimately destroy the lucrative sugar industry. One letter to the editor published in April 1790 in the St. James Chronicle articulated these suspicions and warned against doing away with race-based bonded labor:

“that it is impossible for white men to cultivate the sugar canes in Jamaica, as it is to cultivate the cane itself in this country, is strictly true. And I will vouch for another matter, that if the Slaves were liberated, no pecuniary considerations could prevail upon them to work for hire. A Negro either here or there, will starve rather than work.” 4

Unsurprisingly then, the measure proposed by Ogé and his allies was voted down and he returned to St. Domingue with the certainty that radical action was necessary if free people of color were going to get anywhere.

Sarah: Ogé (formerly a slave-owning men of leisure) began wearing military uniforms and rallying free people of color. Their actions went unnoticed for some time because they restricted their movements to the island’s border with the Spanish colony Santo-Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic). The Spanish were unlikely to protect French interests and the police force was largely made up of free men of color who supported their cause. In October 1790, 800 French soldiers finally confronted Ogés and Chavannes on the battlefield. Half of them were themselves free men of color.

Ogé commanded only half as many men but still, the French were unsuccessful in putting down the revolt and were forced to withdraw. As they anticipated the next French military attack, Chavannes and other soldiers tried to persuade Ogé to enroll enslaved blacks into their ranks, promising them freedom for serving. Ogé categorically refused. He envisioned his revolt to bring about racial neutrality and gradual phasing out of the slave system. Alienating other slave-owners would damage his long-term goals.

Marissa: The colonial governor of St. Domingue, at the head of an army of 3,000, attacked Ogé and his men the very next day. They were forced to flee to the Spanish side of the island where they remained for several months. The Spanish typically sheltered colonial fugitives, another middle finger to their rivals, but Ogé was unlucky. The Spanish were in the middle of negotiations with France and they could not risk upsetting them so they captured Ogé and extradited him to French custody. Ogé and Chavannes were tried, sentenced, tortured, and executed in February 1791. Their bodies were broken on the wheel in the public square, then they were beheaded and their heads displayed on stakes. Ogé’s suffering was great and many people in attendance at the execution were so moved that he quickly became a martyr for the revolutionary cause.

In Paris, French revolutionaries and moderates were incensed. Remember– they had met Ogés at the convention of the Estates-General. Also, moderates, who did not necessarily support abolition, were appreciative of Ogé’s efforts to avoid involving enslaved blacks in his revolt. By May 1791, only months after the execution, the Constituent Assembly in France granted free people of color equal rights throughout the entire empire. Dramatized reenactments of Ogé’s execution were performed on Parisian stages.

Sarah: Now we know what you’re thinking… this wasn’t a slave revolt. And you’re right but it was Ogé’s revolt that brought French Revolutionary politics to the general public in St. Domingue. His execution ignited a civil war among several rival factions in St. Domingue, each fighting for their own interests. These factions were formed around both class, occupational, and racial identities and their alliances shifted constantly. Once again, we are glossing over the details but it’s important to know how chaotic this environment was. In August 1791, 6 months after Ogé’s execution, several isolated slave revolts snowballed into a massive slave insurrection in the Northern Province.

Marissa: The enslaved rebels had planned to execute their revolt on August 25, the day that the Colonial Assembly was scheduled to meet in the capital, Cap Francais. All of the white planter factions were supposed to be in attendance. They presumably planned to slaughter as many men as they could. They began the revolt with a spiritual ceremony called Bois Caȉman. The details of this ceremony are fuzzy and clouded by legend but historians know that the meeting, some version of it, took place. Boukman Dutty and 200 other enslaved people from the surrounding plantations gathered in the woods to plan the revolt. Boukman was purported to be a charismatic orator and he delivered pep talks to his fellow insurgents while a vodun priestess sacrificed a pig and the insurgents pledged their loyalty by drinking the pig’s blood.

Days before go-time, their plan was foiled. Some of their allies were arrested and parts of the conspiracy were discovered by authorities. Boukman decided to initiate the insurrection three days early and on a sugar plantation in the northern province, rather than in the capital. On August 22, the rebels mobilized. To the planters’ horror, it became clear that this was no minor revolt. The enslaved insurgents numbered between 60,000 and 100,000. French troops and colonial militias attached Boukman and his men but they were quickly repulsed. The insurgency moved like wildfire across the north. Rebels destroyed plantation after plantation, murdering whites, burning crops and destroying farming equipment. In the course of two months, the insurgents had killed over 2,000 whites, burned 200 sugar cane fields, 1,200 coffee plantations, and 50 indigo plantations. Boukman was killed that November but still the rebels continued their violence and destruction of the Northern province. By 1792, rebel slaves controlled one-third of the island.

Sarah: In the meantime, the civil war raged among the several factions in St. Domingue. France established a Civil Commission to address the widespread violence and instability. For two years, a French Civil Commission attempted to negotiate peace between the factions but all sides remained obstinate. The enslaved insurgents remained unconnected to the factions in power. They were just a force of legend operating in the North with no voice in the Colonial Assembly.

Léger-Félicité Sonthonax | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

This was until Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was appointed Commissioner in 1793. Sonthonax was given more power than the Commissioners before him (who weren’t getting anything done) and he was sympathetic to the black cause. He was a consummate French revolutionary, committed to liberty, equality, and fraternity. When he arrived in St. Domingue, he raised an army of 6,000 troops (the Commission had never before had its own force). He deported influential whites and replaced them with mulattoes, and dissolved the Colonial Assembly, and replaced it with a Provisional Committee comprised of six whites, five mulattoes, and one free black man. Unsurprisingly, his actions turned all of the white factions against him.

Marissa: The governor, a Frenchman who allied himself with the white planters, challenged the Commission’s authority, so Sonthonax dismissed him. The enraged governor rallied the white militias around his cause and engaged in an armed assault against Sonthonax and his troops. The ex-governor and his militiamen quickly occupied the capital. This was the last straw. Sonthonax responded by promising the enslaved insurgents in the North freedom if they helped him retake the city. Fifteen thousand black insurgents responded to his request and ran the ex-governor and white militiamen off the island.

This alliance between enslaved rebels and the French government came at an opportune time. Shortly after the governor and militiamen were defeated, Spain and Great Britain attacked St. Domingue. Many black insurgents, led by general and former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, had taken up arms with Spain who promised them freedom. Spain and Britain sought to take advantage of the revolutionary chaos in Paris and to protect their colonial interests from the anarchic fervor of French radicals. Yet L’Ouverture and most of his followers did not desire independence from France specifically– they desired independence from slavery and allied themselves with whomever agreed to make that a reality. Identifying this as a unique opportunity, Sonthonax boldly declared liberty for all blacks on the island in the summer of 1793. By February 1794, the French National Convention declared universal abolition of all slaves within the French empire.

Sarah: For France, this was not only political, but also a practical move. The French decided that they could only succeed in their interests abroad if they had one leg up over the English. For revolutionaries, this leg up came in the form of abolition. Now the French were able to quickly raise large armies of ex-slaves on site. The British did not have this capability. Throughout the 1790s, 60,000 British troops were killed, and many millions of pounds spent, in the Caribbean keeping enslaved populations in check. Spain had historically protected the interests of Caribbean slaves in French and British colonies but as L’Ouverture was discovering, they were not willing to go so far as to abolish slavery in order to vanquish their rivals. The goals for most people of color on St. Domingue up to this point had been either (1) legal equality with whites or (2) abolition of slavery. France’s abolition of slavery within the empire gave people of color in St. Domingue what they wanted, yes, but it also served the interests of white, middle class revolutionaries. For example on the day the National Convention abolished slavery, Georges Danton, the first president of the Committee of Public Safety in Paris, was quoted as saying:

“…representatives of the French people, until now our decrees of liberty have been selfish, and only for ourselves. But today we proclaim it to the universe, and generations to come will glory in this decree we are proclaiming universal liberty…We are working for future generations let us launch liberty into the colonies the English are dead, today.”

Marissa: Guadeloupe is one example of the French using abolition against the British. In 1790, the white planters on Guadeloupe refused to enforce France’s granting of equal rights to people of color. (Remember that declaration followed the death of Ogé). A slave revolt in 1793 prompted the disaffected white planters to invite the British to come occupy the island. The British obliged. Guadeloupe was the most lucrative sugar colony in the Caribbean and the they had coveted it for over a century. The British occupied the island for most of 1794 until a French republican governor ended the occupation and freed the slaves who turned on their owners. From that point forward the French used freedmen in interesting ways on Guadeloupe. Ex-slaves manned Guadeloupean privateering ships which attacked British supply ships heading to the colonies. The privateers sometimes captured slave vessels and brought the Africans on board to Guadeloupe where they were given the same rights as other freedmen on the island. These black privateers also played a critical role in the intelligence networks which made pan-Caribbean communication possible during the chaos of the 1790s.

Sarah: So enslaved people in the French Caribbean experienced temporary benefits from France’s radical move. But planters (both black and white) in the colonies continued to resist the declaration of abolition. The British continued to enforce slavery and pursue armed conflict with slave rebels in their Caribbean colonies. In some ways, France’s abolition of slavery made life harder for enslaved people in the British Caribbean. The Second Maroon War is a representative example of how the British handled enslaved rebels after French abolition. Remember we left off with the First Maroon War and how the peace treaty with Britain resulted in a schism of the maroon towns.

In the summer of 1795, so one year after the abolition of slavery in the French Empire, two maroons from Trelawny Town attempted to steal pigs from a farm and were beaten by an enslaved man who worked the farm. When the maroons went to file a grievance with the British, the British imprisoned them and reignited the maroon wars. Because the British were unwilling to ally with enslaved blacks, they were compelled to use their own troops. The British furnished 5,000 troops to fight against Trelawny Town in the ensuing war.

Marissa: Due to the deep fissures in maroon relations caused by the first war, the maroons from Accompong allied with the British and fought Trelawny Town. Sixty-five British troops were killed before the first Trelawny maroon was even wounded. Only a total of 16 Trelawny maroons were killed in the war, while British casualties were in the hundreds. The British were intent on destroyed the maroons this time around. They were convinced that the maroons were being influenced, perhaps even aided by the French revolutionaries. After the British burned down the towns, poisoned their water supply and released 100 Cuban bloodhounds in the region to track maroon warriors, Trelawny Town did eventually surrender. They did so under the condition that they would not be deported off the island. Dozens of runaways fled their plantations to fight alongside Trelawny Town during the war. These warriors were treated with no mercy. Half of them were re-sold into slavery in Cuba and the other half were executed by the British.

The Second Maroon War is obviously much different from the First Maroon War. The stakes were much higher. Having witnessed Takyi’s Rebellion, the American Revolution, Ogé’s Rebellion, and the Slave Insurrection of 1791, the British were intensely motivated by revolt paranoia, a frantic desire to preserve their empire, intensifying imperial rivalries, and the threat of spreading radical republican ideology. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror left 40,000 (mostly) bourgeois Frenchman dead. This was a decisive confirmation for Britons that it was in their interest to preserve parliamentary monarchy. So you can see that as momentous as it was for the French to abolish slavery in the empire, their abolition of slavery and Britain’s decision to continue the slave trade were decisions that aligned with their diplomatic interests more generally.

Marissa: Or at least the French THOUGHT that abolition would serve their general interests. This turned out to be short-sighted when it came to St. Domingue. Shortly after L’Ouverture allied with France, he expelled Sonthonax from the colony before his term as Commissioner was done. Most historians think that he felt threatened by Sonthonax’s popularity and resented the fact that a wealthy white man was taking credit for abolishing slavery. L’Ouverture was an effective leader. A brilliant general, he and his forces were able to expel the British from St. Domingue in 1798. This restored French control over the island. L’Ouverture anticipated that the French would welcome his efforts and that he would become a favored authority within the empire. But he failed to realize that the French feared his power and anticipated that he would conquer the island for himself, leaving France without its most lucrative sugar colony.

Sarah: France responded by putting many checks on L’Ouverture’s power. They encouraged dissent within his ranks, replaced legions of ex-slaves with white troops, forced L’Ouverture to resign and replaced him with three white generals. These actions convinced the ex-slave rebels that France was hellbent on restoring slavery. The end to the French Republic in 1799, at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, supported these fears. The rise of Napoleon marked a turning point when rebels on St. Domingue went from desiring abolition to desiring independence from France and the formation of a black republic. In 1801, L’Ouverture lead an army across the border to conquer the Spanish half of the island and free the slaves who had been under Spanish control. Napoleon’s power continued to grow and the United States pledged their support to him should St. Domingue attempt to overthrow French rule.

Marissa: In a desperate bid to protect the long-term wellbeing of the colony, L’Ouverture enforced labor codes which effectively reinstituted slavery. He sought to make the colony profitable again. He reasoned that St. Domingue had no hope of surviving as an independent nation if it wasn’t producing and exporting goods. So essentially, in order to achieve liberty from France, L’Ouverture rewound one of his biggest accomplishments– the reason why so many people were loyal to him in the first place. Napoleon’s agenda made matters worse because he began to gradually reinstate slavery throughout the empire. After a gradual decline, L’Ouverture was exiled to France where he died in prison. But his second in command, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was able to maintain support from ex-slaves and went on to defeat Napoleon’s forces and declare Independence for Haiti in 1804.

Toussaint L’Ouverture | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The Haitian wars of liberation are the last instances of Caribbean slave revolt that we have time for today but the rebellious spirit of enslaved Caribbeans did not end there. In fact, it was invigorated by the Haitian example which taught them that blacks were indeed capable of defeating white Europeans and creating a nation of their own. Enslaved populations in the British Caribbean were inspired by Haiti and went on to stage several large slave revolts– in Barbados in 1816, and Jamaica in 1831– before they abolished slavery in 1833. Apart from the immediate impact of Caribbean slave revolts during the Revolutionary era, there are several ways that it influenced Caribbean culture today. The enslaved rebels we quoted at the top of the show had referred to a black Caribbean “nation.” This and many other instances suggest that Caribbean slave revolts sit at the root of Afro-Caribbean identity. This is the reason why Akan culture is so critical to the Afro-Caribbean identity which was forged during this century. This identity is one shaped by colonialism and enslavement, but also on the legacy of Akan heritage which shaped the thoughts and tactics of enslaved rebels.

Marissa: So in some ways, Long’s and Dovaston’s perception that enslaved people in the Caribbean were prone to rebellion is accurate: enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and their creole descendants DID employ active and very violent resistance at a frequency and intensity that we don’t find elsewhere. But planters like Long and Dovaston failed to locate the cause in the racism and inhumanity of the system of bonded labor that sustained their fortunes. There was also more to Caribbean slave rebellions than revolutionary ideology. This “200 Years War” began long before the revolutionary era, and ended only once Caribbeans achieved widespread emancipation and independence in the 1860s. But the cultural currency of republican politics did, for some time, allow enslaved Caribbeans to legitimize their rebellion.

But I have to point out the irony of one thing: Dovaston singled out Gold Coast Africans as the ethnic group most suited to slavery. Obviously no ethnic group is ever suited to slavery. But he was doubly wrong about the Akan from the Gold Coast which he called “dull and stupid and only fit for Labour.” Approximately 1.2 million Akan people were forcibly transplanted to the Caribbean and sold as slaves between 1520 and 1838. The Akan were incredibly intelligent and sophisticated activists whose military skills had a devastating impact on European powers. Akan culture was an important element of the 200 Years War for abolition and their activism served as inspiration for Marcus Garvey, the Rasta movement, Reggae, and some argue, for a pan-Caribbean identity which allowed for the rise of Caribbean nationalist politics in the 20th century.


Roberts, Justin. Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Konadu, Kwasi. The Akan Diaspora in the Americas. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012.

Dunn, Richard S. A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2014.

Cummings, Ronald. 2012. “Jamaican Female Masculinities: Nanny of the Maroons and the Genealogy of the Man-Royal”. Journal of West Indian Literature. 21, no. 1-2: 129-154.

Thompson, Alvin O. Flight to Freedom: African Runaways and Maroons in the Americas. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006.

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Hart, Richard. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2002.

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There are lots of famous people who are recognised for bringing slavery to an end.

In the UK, MP William Wilberforce is one of the most well known, for his role in taking the fight to parliament and having a law passed to stop the slave trade.

But lots of slaves and former slaves also took action to fight for freedom, not just for themselves but to make an impact in other countries too.

Here are some of the key figures that helped bring an end to slavery in different parts of the world.


Toussaint L'Ouverture was a former slave who helped lead the revolution against the slave owners in Haiti.

He was intelligent and well-educated, so managed to buy his freedom soon after becoming an adult.

But when slaves revolted in 1791 Toussaint decided to join the fight against slavery.

The uprising ultimately led to the ending of slavery there and the creation of an independent country Haiti in 1804.

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In this time Toussaint had become the leader of history's largest slave revolt, and later one of France's military commanders.

In 1793 while at war with France, Britain tried to capture St Domingue, but L'Ouverture's army won and the British troops had to withdraw.

This showed British officers what determined military opponents enslaved people fighting for their freedom could be, and helped to change the view people had of Africans as weak or not equal to white people.

L'Ouverture actions also indirectly helped bring an end to slavery in Britain too.

It had previously been argued that if Britain abolished slavery then its main rival, France, would take over its trade routes. But after the French empire fell and slavery was abolished in France in 1794, this was no longer a concern.

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James Somerset was brought to England from Jamaica in 1769, but he escaped and used the British courts against his owners, to stop him being sent back to Jamaica.

In 1771, 19-year-old James and his lawyer Granville Sharp called for an area of law called 'Habeas corpus' to be applied to James.

This means a prisoner has to be brought before a court so it can decide if that person's imprisonment is lawful.

At this time, the slave-trade was legal in the UK and there were 15,000 slaves in England, but because James had been put in chains to be transported back to Jamaica Mr Sharp argued he was a prisoner.

This proved to be a big test case in the courts, with Sharp challenging the law to see slaves as human beings, rather than property.

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Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice - the highest judge in the country - agreed and granted James Somerset his freedom, saying that slavery was so "odious" the English courts could not accept it.

Many people saw this judgment as outlawing slavery in Britain and it helped many other slaves also get their freedom.

However, although attitudes were changing it was still legal to own slaves, and they were still widely seen as 'property' rather than people.

Mary Prince was born into slavery in around 1788, on Bermuda, off the coast of the United States, and was taken away from her family at the age of ten.

For years she was forced to work on several West Indian islands, making salt. The work was hard and caused sun blisters on exposed parts of the body and painful boils and sores on the legs.

But in 1828, she was brought from Antigua to England by her then owners, Mr and Mrs John Wood.

Slavery was still legal in the West Indies, but not in Britain, so when she reached London she left the Woods and joined a group called Anti-Slavery Society, whose aim was for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

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She told her life story to supporters of abolition and they helped her publish a book in 1831, called 'The History of Mary Prince'.

People were shocked to read about the treatment she had suffered, and it helped gain support for the anti-slavery movement at a time when there was a powerful, and ultimately successful, campaign to get freedom for all people who were slaves under the British Empire.

Frederick Douglass was an African American slave who managed to escape from slavery at the age of 20.

After he escaped in 1838, he got married, changed his surname, and joined the anti-slavery movement.

He quickly became one of the most well known campaigners of his time, with a talent for public speaking, as he travelled around telling people about life as a slave.

He also wrote two books about his experiences, and travelled to Ireland and the UK where he was impressed by how much more freedom black people had, compared to in the United States.

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When he returned to the United States in 1847, Douglass began publishing his own anti-slavery newsletter, the North Star, and also became involved in the movement for women's rights.

Slavery came to an end following the American Civil ar, but Douglass was disappointed that ex-slaves still weren't allowed to vote.

He carried on campaigning for this as well as turning his attention to fighting racial prejudice.

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Harriet was born into slavery in Maryland, in the United States in 1820, and grew up working in the cotton fields.

In September 1849, when she was 27 her owner died, and she escaped - along with her two younger brothers, leaving her husband behind.

After three weeks her brothers were scared and decided to go back, so Harriet continued on alone travelling almost 90 miles to the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania - a state where slavery was illegal.

She got a job as a servant in a house but when she found out some family members were going to be sold to her former owners, she realised she needed to help others escape too.

Along with a network of helpers known as 'The Underground Railroad', Harriet helped more than 70 slaves find freedom in other states or in Canada, including her brothers and her parents.

Black Loyalists Exodus to Nova Scotia (1783)

The Black Loyalists were the approximately 3,000 African American supporters of the British during the American Revolution who were repatriated to British Canada at the end of the conflict. Most settled in Nova Scotia and established what would be for decades, the largest concentration of black residents in Canada and what was at the time the largest settlement of free blacks outside Africa.

The Black Loyalists who fought for Great Britain believed they were fighting not only for their own freedom, but for the ultimate abolition of slavery in North America. The British commitment to the these loyalists began when Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation promising freedom to all Virginia slaves who supported the British and the white Loyalist allies.

Over the seven years of the American Revolution these men made an immense contribution to the British war effort. The black pioneers were the most famous of the Black Loyalist military units. A pioneer was a soldier whose main task was to provide engineering duties in camp and combat. Divided into a number of different corps attached to larger armies, they served as scouts, raiders, and what we would call today military engineers. While generally not a fighting unit, they would have often been called to work under heavy fire and the most dangerous conditions.

As the British began preparations for their withdrawal from the American colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, they sought land on which to settle the white and Black Loyalists who were displaced by the war. Their search led them to the largely unoccupied, unsettled province of Nova Scotia in Canada.

The first Black Loyalists—men, their wives and children–arrived in Halifax and other Maritime ports in the summer of 1783. Since they had fought for the British Crown and were promised the same rights, privileges and freedom that their white counterparts were to receive, they expected land and to be incorporated into the provincial political structure. They were, however, betrayed by the colonial government which initially provided neither land or respected their political or civil rights. Some British Army officers suggested the Black Loyalists be used as ransom for the British prisoners still held by the Americans. Civilian Loyalists, including many slaveholders from the thirteen colonies, argued that the blacks should be re-enslaved.

During this period of vulnerability, the black migrants became the source of cheap labour for the more prosperous Nova Scotians, often scrambling to survive by any means available to them. Black Loyalists, however, pressured the colonial government of Nova Scotia to honour its commitment to them. Many held certificates signed by British General Samuel Birch, guaranteeing their freedom, and a promise that a small plot of land would be waiting for them.

In September 1783, the colonial government finally provided land. Seven companies of black pioneers were led by their black commander, Colonel Stephen Blucke to the new settlement, which they named Birchtown in honour of General Samuel Birch. These settlers became known as the Birchtown Black Loyalists. Birchtown soon became the destination of choice for many isolated communities of blacks and refugees. The population ranged from 1,500 to 2,000 people, more than half of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia.

Birchtown, however, soon proved unsuitable. The community was situated on the rocky side of the Halifax harbour, and was virtually surrounded by a large swamp. The available farmland was mostly rocky barren soil. The Black Loyalists were left to work this area for nearly a decade with virtually no livestock, guns or ammunition for hunting, lumber for housing or capital or credit for supplies. Ultimately these liabilities took its toll on the settlers.

In 1791, Thomas Peters, a Pioneer sergeant, journeyed to London to lodge a formal complaint about the injustices black settlers were suffering in Nova Scotia. While in London, Peters met with the chairman of the Sierra Leone Company and was able to negotiate the free passage of approximately 1,200 black Nova Scotian residents to the west coast of Africa, where they would help establish a free black colony. Consequentially, Birchtown was mostly depopulated by 1792 as nearly all of the people who had a choice left for Africa. Colonel Stephen Blucke and about 50 families remained but most of them gradually moved away over the years to Halifax and other cities.

Today most of Birchtown’s residents are white. Nonetheless it is the home of the Black Loyalist Society. There is a National Heritage Monument on the site of the original Birchtown cemetery and a small museum in a 19th Century school.

The Ex-Slaves Who Fought with the British - HISTORY

Slavery, the American Revolution, and the Constitution

African American soldiers served with valor at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. In November 1775, however, Congress decided to exclude blacks from future enlistment out of a sensitivity to the opinion of southern slave holders. But Lord Dunmore's promise of freedom to slaves who enlisted in the British army led Congress reluctantly to reverse it decision, fearful that black soldiers might join the redcoats.

African Americans played an important role in the revolution. They fought at Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Bunker Hill. A slave helped row Washington across the Delaware. Altogether, some 5,000 free blacks and slaves served in the Continental army during the Revolution. By 1778, many states, including Virginia, granted freedom to slaves who served in the Revolutionary war.

The American Revolution had profound effects on the institution of slavery. Several thousand slaves won their freedom by serving on both sides of the War of Independence. As a result of the Revolution, a surprising number of slaves were manumitted, while thousands of others freed themselves by running away. In Georgia alone, 5000 slaves, a third of the colony's prewar total, escaped. In South Carolina, a quarter of the slaves achieved freedom.

Both the British and the colonists believed that slaves could serve an important role during the revolution. In April 1775, Lord Dunmore (1732-1809), the royal governor of Virginia, threatened that he would proclaim liberty to the slaves and reduce Williamsburg to ashes if the colonists resorted to force against British authority. In November, he promised freedom to all slaves belonging to rebels who would join "His Majesty's Troops. for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty. " Some eight hundred slaves joined British forces, some wearing the emblem "Liberty to the Slaves." The British appeal to slave unrest outraged slave holders not only in the South but in New York's Hudson Valley. Later, Sir Henry Clinton (1738-1795) promised protection to all slaves who deserted from the rebels. Clinton's promise may well have contributed to the collapse of the British cause in the South. By suggesting that the Revolution was a war over slavery, he alienated many neutrals and even some loyalists.

Meanwhile, an American diplomat, Silas Deane (1737-1789), hatched a secret plan to incite slave insurrections in Jamaica. Two South Carolinians, John Laurens (1754-1782) and his father Henry (1724-1792), persuaded Congress to unanimously approve a plan to recruit an army of 3000 slave troops in South Carolina and Georgia. The federal government would compensate the slaves' owners and each black would, at the end of the war, be emancipated and receive $50. The South Carolina legislature rejected the plan, scuttling the proposal. In the end, however, and in contrast to the later Latin American wars of independence and the U.S. Civil War, neither the British nor the Americans proved willing to risk a full-scale social revolution by issuing an emancipation proclamation.

The Constitution and Slavery

On the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, said that the Constitution was "defective from the start." He point out that the framers had left out a majority of Americans when they wrote the phrase, "We the People." While some members of the Constitutional Convention voiced "eloquent objections" to slavery, Marshall said they "consented to a document which laid a foundation for the tragic events which were to follow."

The word "slave" does not appear in the Constitution. The framers consciously avoided the word, recognizing that it would sully the document. Nevertheless, slavery received important protections in the Constitution. The notorious Three-fifths clause--which counted three fifths of the slave population in apportioning representation--gave the South extra representation in the House and extra votes in the Electoral College. Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 if not for the Three-fifths compromise. The Constitution also prohibited Congress from outlawing the Atlantic slave trade for twenty years. A fugitive slave clause required the return of runaway slaves to their owners. The Constitution gave the federal government the power to put down domestic rebellions, including slave insurrections.

The framers of the Constitution believed that concessions on slavery were the price for the support of southern delegates for a strong central government. They were convinced that if the Constitution restricted the slave trade, South Carolina and Georgia would refuse to join the Union. But by sidestepping the slavery issue, the framers left the seeds for future conflict. After the convention approved the great compromise, Madison wrote: "It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination."

Of the 55 Convention delegates, about 25 owned slaves. Many of the framers harbored moral qualms about slavery. Some, including Benjamin Franklin (a former slave owner) and Alexander Hamilton (who was born in a slave colony in the British West Indies) became members of antislavery societies.

On August 21, 1787, a bitter debate broke out over a South Carolina proposal to prohibit the federal government from regulating the Atlantic slave trade. Luther Martin of Maryland, a slaveholder, said that the slave should be subject to federal regulation since the entire nation would be responsible for suppressing slave revolts. He also considered the slave trade contrary to America's republican ideals. "It is inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution," he said, "and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the constitution."

John Rutledge of South Carolina responded forcefully. "Religion and humanity have nothing to do with this question," he insisted. Unless regulation of the slave trade was left to the states, the southern-most states "shall not be parties to the union." A Virginia delegate, George Mason, who owned hundreds of slaves, spoke out against slavery in ringing terms. "Slavery," he said, "discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves." Slavery also corrupted slave holders and threatened the country with divine punishment: "Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country."

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut accused slave holders from Maryland and Virginia of hypocrisy. They could afford to oppose the slave trade, he claimed, because "slaves multiply so fast in Virginia and Maryland that it is cheaper to raise then import them, whilst in the sickly rice swamps [of South carolina and Georgia] foreign supplies are necessary." Ellsworth suggested that ending the slave trade would benefit slave owners in the Chesapeake region, since the demand for slaves in other parts of the South was increase the price of slaves once the external supply was cut off.

The controversy over the Atlantic slave trade was ultimately settled by compromise. In exchange for a 20-year ban on any restrictions on the Atlantic slave trade, southern delegates agreed to remove a clause restricting the national government's power to enact laws requiring goods to be shipped on American vessels (benefiting northeastern shipbuilders and sailors). The same day this agreement was reached, the convention also adopted the fugitive slave clause, requiring the return of runaway slaves to their owners.

Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison claimed when he burned the document in 1854 and called it "a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell"? This question still provokes controversy. If the Constitution temporarily strengthened slavery, it also created a central government powerful enough to eventually abolish the institution.

Discussion Topic: Did the framers of the Constitution miss an opportunity to put slavery on the path to eventual extinction?

In June 1787, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery - the world's first antislavery society - asked its president, Benjamin Franklin, to deliver an anti-slave trade resolution to the Constitutional Convention. The resolution declared: "In vain will be Americans' Pretentions to a love of liberty or regard for national character while they share in the profits of a Commerce that can only be conducted upon Rivers of human tears and blood."

Franklin never presented that resolution or any other antislavery materials to the convention. He explained that he "thought it advisable to let them lie over for the present."

In 1790 Franklin did send a petition to Congress on behalf of the Society asking for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. The petition, signed on February 3, 1790, asked the first Congress, then meeting in New York City, to "devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People," and to "promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race."

The petition was denounced by pro-slavery congressmen and sparked a heated debate in both the House and the Senate. The Senate took no action on the petition, and the House referred it to a select committee for further consideration. The committee claimed that the Constitution restrains Congress from prohibiting the importation or emancipation of slaves until 1808 and then tabled the petition. On April 17, 1790, just two months later, Franklin died in Philadelphia at the age of 84.

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, signed by Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvania Society,
February 3, 1790, Records of the United States Senate, Center for Legislative Archives.

Inquiry Questions: Speaking Out Against Slavery

1. Why do you think that antislavery northern delegates like Franklin were reluctant to speak out openly against slavery at the Constitutional Convention?

2. Why, in contrast, were slave owners, like George Mason of Virginia and Luther Martin of Maryland, more willing to speak out against the Atlantic slave trade?

3. Why did delegates feel that they had to placate South Carolina and Georgia at a time when those states were faced by a serious military threat from the Spanish in Florida and from the powerful Creek Indian confederacy?

Additional Activity: Analyzing a Primary Source - Pennsylvania Ends Slavery

British Corps of Colonial Marines (1808-1810, 1814-1816)

During the first two decades of the 19 th Century, escaped American slaves formed a military cadre called Britain’s Royal Navy Corps of Colonial Marines. After the War of 1812 these former soldiers established Trinidad’s “Merikin” communities. These black marines in the British Navy were first organized in 1808 to garrison Britain’s Caribbean bases but they were disbanded in 1810. During the War of 1812, British Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane formed the Corps of Colonial Marines. Although they were of African descent and many were formerly enslaved, these troops received the same training, uniforms, pay, and pensions as their Royal Marine counterparts.

The Corps of Colonial Marines saw extensive military action from Canada to Georgia in the years 1814 to 1816. These former slaves often had extensive local knowledge of tidal creeks and riverine routes of the US South during that period. Because of that knowledge they participated in numerous battles, skirmishes, and raids during the War of 1812. They supported the British forces who burned Washington, D.C. in 1814 and who were later repulsed by US troops at Baltimore, Maryland. The Colonial Marines assisted Britain’s Southern Coastal Campaign by guarding the British Army’s right flank during the invasion and subsequent Battle of New Orleans in 1815. When the 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the Corps of Colonial Marines was transferred to British bases in Bermuda.

The role of the Colonial Marines at Prospect Bluff, Florida in 1816 typified their use after the War of 1812. The Marines were ordered to defend a nominally Spanish-fortified stockade at Prospect Bluff that was now the target of U.S. forces. The stockade, overlooking the fertile Apalachicola river valley, was at the center of a web of river and road transportation and communications routes extending into Georgia and Alabama Territory. The fort had previously been under the protective umbrella of the Colony of Spanish Florida and had over time become such a prominent sanctuary for escaped slaves that it was called Negro Fort. Now however it was guarded by the Corps of Colonial Marines.

Major General Andrew Jackson, projecting American power into the Florida panhandle, attempted to capture the stockade. In July 1816, Jackson led a riverine flotilla of US gunboats toward the fort. American forces overran the stockade, which was defended primarily by the Colonial Marines, but with Spanish and Seminole allies. When a lucky artillery shot hit the fort’s powder magazine, it exploded, forcing the British to surrender. After the surrender, many of the survivors were enslaved by American forces. Other Colonial Marines were withdrawn, demobilized, and settled in the British colony of Trinidad in the West Indies. The Corps of Colonial Marines never again took to the field of battle. Negro Fort today is a US National Landmark known as Fort Gadsden.

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